The View from My Section

The Proust Effect

As you’re lying on the beach this summer, or by the pool, or simply walking in the park with your earbuds in listening to your favorite music, here’s something else you can think about.

There’s a little-known, yet important passage from literature by Marcel Proust in his novel series “À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu” (In Search of Lost Time) in which the narrator takes a drink of tea with traces of crumbs from a madeleine cake. He then says, “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.” The experience took him back to his childhood and elicited memories that were long forgotten. Contemporary marketing professionals, especially those in the scent industry, refer to this as the Proust Effect after the famous author.

In essence, it refers to provoking our “involuntary memory”. Memory that is triggered by our senses such as a certain smell, taste, or sound. It’s so powerful that when you experience it, your mind travels back in time to the very moment a certain event took place in your life that involved that same smell, taste or sound. What’s so important is the vividness of the memory, it’s clear, and the emotions attached to it come back to you as if you’re experiencing it once again.

A memory inspired by our senses as opposed to being asked a question, or our mere attempt to recall on our own, is very different. It’s significantly more intense, and most often more pleasurable. The science behind it suggests that our sense of smell, for instance, travels directly to the olfactory bulb, which is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, the memory-processing hub of our brain. Thus, the memory response is instant. This validates its usage so predominantly in marketing, especially perfumes.

If you pause to consider it, you’ll likely recall your personal Proustian moment. I know I have several. For instance, whenever I hear Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the night” I’m immediately transported back to the time when my older brother, his future wife and I were traveling to my very first rock concert out of town. It was Aerosmith and had nothing to do with the style of music but more to do with the message. I was so excited as a young teenager to be going, and the words seemed to fit naturally (my mind totally ignored the real message of the song at the time).

Another example is when I lay on the beach or by the pool and close my eyes, and I can hear sounds and conversations around me but not well enough to be inclined to listen, simply more like background noise. It takes me back to my childhood and my family’s annual vacations to the beach and how much fun we had. 

The smell of bacon frying in a pan invokes my memories of the many camping trips my family took. I’m a big breakfast guy anyway, but there’s nothing like the smell of breakfast cooking in the morning at a campsite. Everyone has the same idea, so the aromas of bacon and sausage awaken you with your mouth salivating. Another breakfast memory of mine is inspired by the smell of Karo pancake syrup on buttered toast, a favorite my grandmother used to make for us.

British author, and television and film personality, Fearne Cotton said, “It takes one thought, one second, one moment or positive memory to act as a catalyst for the light to gradually seep in again.”

Recently though, I realized our visual senses can impart a similar effect, especially when it refers to home movies. Watching a compilation video I made a few years back for my son brought back strong, sentimental emotions of times we’ve shared. As I watch these movies in retrospect it makes them all the more valuable, for time has a way of eroding much of life’s simple everyday moments.

Though Proust was a writer and not a scientist or medical doctor, he nailed our ability to tap into our involuntary memory, and thus re-experience those special moments in our lives, some of which we’d long forgotten, and others we simply enjoy revisiting from time to time. Admittedly, I don’t know very much about his literature, but his insight is truly amazing. And for that, I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect and reminisce.

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